This time two years ago I was packing to leave for a three-week trip to France during which I was scheduled to cook the harvest at three wineries in different parts of the country.
Harvest isn’t like Christmas. It doesn’t fall on the same day every year. Its timing depends on the weather and the ripeness of the grapes. Given that I was cooking at wineries in three different regions, the exact details of the trip were difficult to iron out. If I had extra time, I planned to spend it touring wine regions along the way, which since I was beginning my trip in the Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence near Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea and ending up in Alsace on the North Eastern border between France and Germany was a considerable distance. What I found out (in addition to the fact that I drive so much better in France than in Italy and that I definitely need to buy a Fiat Panda because I like them so much!) is that harvest—not shockingly—is a huge amount of hard work with sanitation in the winery taking up a massive portion of the time. I also saw first hand the truth in the rather cutesy statement that it takes a lot of beer to make good wine.
All that hard work in the fields and the winery makes for some very hungry folks. Consequently, behind the scenes there is an additional amount of effort and thought put into feeding said folks. Each winery has its own food culture surrounding harvest. Some provide two to three meals a day while others expect the harvesters to feed themselves.
Obviously, since I was there to cook, the wineries I visited provided food for either their pickers or the winery employees. At Domaine de Sulauze an organic and biodynamic property in the Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, Karina and Guillaume Lefèvre provide accommodations for their harvesters in a super cute gîte (guesthouse). They also provide a casse-croûte or morning snack and lunch. Dinner is more informal with the harvesters and Karina taking turns cooking for the group. On evenings where the harvesters fended for themselves, Karina and Guillaume ate separately in their nearby home—relishing the little bit of downtime they had with their two adorable children, Jorge and Carmen.
Karina and Guillaume also have an organic brewery on their farm and the beer they produce was a welcome addition to the end-of-the-day routine. With Guillaume and his team busy in the winery processing the newly-harvested grapes and Karina and her office staff dealing with the continuing business involved in running a winery (even during harvest) not to mention Karina and her mother Angela taking care of their two active children and planning meals for the next day, there was a lot of downtime for the harvesters. It's kind of a hurry up and wait scenario.
As they trickled in from the fields, the beer keg at the gîte was one of the first stops the harvesters made—a welcome respite after the hot physical effort of picking grapes. This was not Germany, however, or even the U.S. There were no beer steins. They were using wine glasses for the beer and as anyone who has ever poured beer from a tap knows, you have to let the first little bit of beer escape to get rid of the foam. That meant a considerable amount of beer was wasted for each 4 oz. glass of beer and they were going through kegs faster than a college fraternity on homecoming weekend. After watching them run out of beer the second night in a row, I suggested that they use a pitcher to capture the beer and pour it into their wine glasses from there. The young gentlemen explained to me in a polite yet somewhat condescending fashion that beer needed to be drunk quickly to retain its bubbles. They didn’t come right out and say it, but they were clearly thinking “what does this spoiled American woman know about drinking beer from a keg?” Equally polite, I suppressed my three-word answer—“Kansas State University.” Drinking beer wasn’t my major in college, but I did devote several block periods of time per week to studying it. I also didn’t mention that I was the beer buyer for a short amount of time at Comet Ping Pong—the pizza and craft beer restaurant where I had worked in DC. Frankly, there is only so much interfering that you can do when you are the guest, whether you are cooking for them or not. Beer shortages not withstanding, Guillaume and Karina provided a warm and relaxing environment for the people doing the important yet seasonal task of bringing in the grapes. And having a brewery on site certainly made it more enjoyable.
Enough talk of beer. Time to discuss food, specifically casse-croûte. Casse-croûte means break the crust. It’s a mid-morning snack (kind of like second breakfast for you Lord of the Rings fans). It can range anywhere from cookies and coffee to sausages and cheese or leftover meat from dinner the night before slapped between some crusty bread and a glass of wine. Each morning around 10 a.m. at Domaine de Sulauze, Karina Lefèvre would pack up a basket filled with coffee, fruit and a sweet of some sort and take it to the harvesters and the winery workers. Her ability to whip up a pound cake while accomplishing a million other things was impressive, but as she told me, after awhile she wanted to vary the casse-croûte menu. That’s where I came in and quite by accident I might add.
Karina had been an exchange student in Texas and while there had taken quite a liking to peanut butter cookies. Now, I am loathe to admit it, but as much as I love cooking, I have never been much of a baker and given the fact that I am not a dessert person, I do not have a bunch of cookie recipes committed to memory. I had to email my mother to ask for her recipe.
I will say the cookies turned out quite well considering that the texture of the peanut butter that I found at the organic market in Miramas, France was somewhat different than the Jif my mother uses. At least the harvesters seemed to like them. I gave Karina that recipe and a chocolate chip cookie recipe as well (which, frankly is the recipe off the bag of Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chips so I won’t be giving that to you. I assume you know where you can find it!). Hopefully they have helped provide a little extra variety to the casse-croûte at Domaine Sulauze since then.
MOM’S PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES
It had been years since I had made peanut butter cookies when I made them at Domaine de Sulauze in September 2013. Even though I don’t love to bake, I have fond childhood memories of using a sugar-coated fork to squish crisscross patterns on the balls of peanut butter cookie dough in my mother’s kitchen.
Yield: 40 medium cookies
Wine Pairing: None. Milk or coffee please!
1 cup lightly softened butter
1 cup granulated sugar (plus 1/3 cup reserved for the crisscross garnish)
1 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tspn vanilla extract
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tspn baking soda
1/8 tspn salt
What you’ll need:
Electric Mixer with a Beater Blade attachment
Two cookie sheets(My Mom uses Airbake cookie sheets, the ones with the cushion of air in them)
Thin metal spatula
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 7-10 minutes turning once
Preheat Oven to 350° F.
Cream the butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy. This will take a couple of minutes. While the butter and sugar are creaming, combine the flour, soda and salt.
Once the butter and sugar mixture have reached the desired fluffiness, stop the mixer and scrape down the side of the mixing bowl. Restart the mixer and add one egg at a time and mix until incorporated and fluffy. Lower the speed of the mixer and add the vanilla and peanut butter and mix until incorporated.
At this point, turn off the mixer and add ½ cup of the flour mixture and blend in at a slow speed. Shut off the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and then repeat the process adding ½ cup of flour at a time until it is all incorporated. It will be slow going towards the end as the dough gets really thick.
Roll the dough into balls slightly smaller than a golf ball and place on your baking sheet. Coat a fork with sugar and press down on the cookies to make a crisscross pattern.
Bake them in a 350° F turning once after 4 minutes. Check the cookies after 3 more minutes. They may be ready. Be careful not to over bake the cookies. You should to take them out when they are still soft as they will firm up when they cool. Ideally they will look golden, but not brown.
Sourcing: Easy (unless you are in France where finding peanut butter isn’t quite as easy.)
#1: If you prefer to use peanut butter with minimal ingredients, i.e. peanuts and salt, you will need to taste the dough to see if the sugar and salt content are at your desired level. If you use unsalted peanut butter, you will need to add more salt.
#2: Creaming butter. The most important part of this recipe (as with most cookie recipes) is to cream the butter and sugar until it is light and fluffy. I find this gives the cookies a lighter texture. Begin by putting lightly softened butter in the mixer and beating it until fluffy. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides, then add the sugars and begin mixing again. Continue mixing until the color has lightened and the texture is extremely light and fluffy. A friend of mine said he creams the butter until there are no discernable sugar crystals but this takes a considerable amount of time and considering we are using chunky peanut butter in this recipe is not quite as crucial.
#3: I like my cookies chewy. If you like yours crispy, cream the butter longer and cook them a bit longer as this will make them crispier.